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UPDATE 1-Facebook says Russian influence campaign targeted left-wing voters in US, UK

Tue, 1st Sep 2020 19:39

* Facebook says it dismantles Russian influence operation

* Operation centred on a pseudo media organisation -
Facebook

* Focus partly on U.S. election and racial tensions -
analysts

* Russia has denied interfering in other countries' politics
(Adds Twitter statement, Trump campaign comment)

By Jack Stubbs

LONDON, Sept 1 (Reuters) - A Russian influence operation
posed as an independent news outlet to target left-wing voters
in the United States and Britain, including by recruiting
freelance journalists to write about domestic politics, Facebook
said on Tuesday.

Facebook Inc said the operation - which partly
focused on U.S. politics and racial tensions in the run-up to
the Nov. 3 presidential election - centred around a pseudo media
organisation called Peace Data.

The website operated 13 Facebook accounts and two pages,
which were set up in May and suspended on Monday for using fake
identities and other forms of "coordinated inauthentic
behaviour," the company said.

Facebook said its investigation "found links to individuals
associated with past activity by the Russian Internet Research
Agency", a St Petersburg-based company which U.S. intelligence
officials say was central to Russian efforts to sway the 2016
presidential election.

Twitter said it had also suspended five accounts as part of
the operation which it could "reliably attribute to Russian
state actors."

Peace Data did not respond to an emailed request for comment
and Russian officials were not immediately available after
normal working hours in Moscow. Russia has previously denied
U.S. allegations of trying to sway elections and says it does
not interfere in the domestic politics of other countries.

Investigators at social media analytics firm Graphika
studied the operation and said Peace Data predominately targeted
progressive and left-wing groups in the United States and
Britain, but also posted about events in other countries
including Algeria and Egypt.

It said in a report https://public-assets.graphika.com/reports/graphika_report_ira_again_unlucky_thirteen.pdf
that the website pushed messages critical of right-wing voices
and the centre left, and in the United States "paid particular
attention to racial and political tensions", including civil
rights protests and criticism of President Donald Trump and his
Democratic rival, Joe Biden.

Graphika said only around 5% of Peace Data's
English-language articles directly concerned the U.S. election,
but that "this facet of the operation suggests an attempt to
build a left-wing audience and steer it away from Biden's
campaign."

The findings support an assessment by the United States' top
counterintelligence official last month, who said Moscow was
using online disinformation to try to undercut the Biden
campaign, and could stoke fears about further Russian efforts to
interfere in the November vote.

A spokesman for the Trump campaign said the president would
win re-election "fair and square and we don’t need or want any
foreign interference." The Biden campaign did not immediately
respond to requests for comment.

The U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence
referred questions to the FBI, which did not immediately return
messages seeking comment.

INFORMATION PROVIDED BY FBI

Facebook's head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher,
said his team acted on information provided by the FBI and
suspended the accounts before they gathered a large online
following. Only 14,000 people followed one or more of the
suspended accounts, he said.

"I think it's very important that we know about this,"
Gleicher told Reuters. "I want people to know that Russian
actors are still trying and their tactics are evolving, but I
wouldn't want people to think that this was a large, successful
campaign."

Peace Data publishes in English and Arabic and says on its
website it is a non-profit news organisation seeking "the truth
about key world events".

But the three permanent staff listed online are not real,
according to the Graphika analysis, which found the profiles
used computer-generated photographs of non-existent people and
were linked to fake accounts on Facebook, Twitter and
business-networking site LinkedIn.

The fake personas advertised for writers on freelance
journalism websites and Twitter, offering up to $75 for an
article, screenshots of the adverts seen by Reuters showed.

Peace Data's website lists 22 "contributors", mostly
freelance journalists in the United States and Britain. Facebook
and Graphika said there was no indication the writers knew who
was behind the website.

Peace Data "staff" then shared the articles, covering a wide
range of political issues, in left-wing social media groups,
Graphika said. The website published over 700 articles in
English and Arabic between February and August this year.

Ben Nimmo, head of investigations at Graphika, said
co-opting real people made it easier for political influence
operations to remain undetected.

"What we've seen recently has been much smaller and much
lower profile," he said. "It looks like they're trying harder
and harder to hide."

(Reporting by Jack Stubbs; Editing by Timothy Heritage)

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